Google Chrome's engineering director discusses how the company is trying to preserve digital advertising after tracking cookies are killed off

  • Justin Schuh is director of Chrome engineering at Google.
  • Schuh discussed the latest developments in Chome’s plans to replacing tracking cookies.
  • Because of his work, Insider named Schuh to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming media in North America.
  • Visit Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

The race is on to find an alternative technology to replace the third-party tracking cookies advertisers use to target and measure online ads.

Google, owner of the world’s most popular web browser, set the countdown clock ticking last year when it said it would end support for third-party cookies in Chrome by 2022. It’s been experimenting with tools in its “Privacy Sandbox” that are designed to allow advertising to continue to work on the web but in a less privacy encroaching way. 

Last month, Google said one of those new techniques — Federated Learning of Cohorts (also known as FLoC) — was “nearly as effective as cookie-based approaches” in its own tests. FLoC uses machine learning algorithms that run on a user’s device to cluster people into interest-based groups based on behavior like their browsing history. It’s now preparing to let other adtech companies experiment with some of its proposals.

Google’s rivals and other participants in the advertising ecosystem are watching Google’s moves closely and often with scrutiny. In the UK, the country’s competition regulator is even investigating a complaint from an advertising industry group that alleges Google’s decision to remove third-party cookies from Chrome and replace it with technologies from its Privacy Sandbox would limit competition in the digital ad market. Other companies have been adding feedback and discussing their own proposals for cookie alternatives in subcommittees of the World Wide Web consortium, or W3C, a key web standards group.  

Insider spoke with Justin Schuh, security and privacy engineering director for Google Chrome, who is leading its Privacy Sandbox efforts. Schuh discussed how Chrome is attempting to assuage ad industry concerns about its cookie replacements, his ambitions for other browsers and platforms to adopt Privacy Sandbox-like solutions, and how Chrome is thinking about ways to give users more control how their data is used.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Insider: Have you set a baseline for the minimum level of industry consensus for any of your given proposals before you go ahead and build them into Chrome?

Justin Schuh: That really comes down to discussions within the W3C; it comes down to the feedback we get from other partners; it comes down to reasoned decisions about what’s implementable.

I don’t know if ‘consensus’ is the right word because the web is a very complicated place with a lot of different players. It really comes down to what … seems to be in the best interest of the community at large.

Insider: If you had, for example, 80% of the participants in one of your W3C groups, saying, ‘This is awful!’ — but Chrome thought it was the right thing to do, would you still roll it out?

Schuh: I don’t know how to answer that because 80% of people that show up to the W3C is not actually a representative sample. The different groups that show up to the W3C represent wildly different sizes of companies, different footprint-players et cetera.

These are tough calls to make and because of that they can’t be distilled down to simple numbers.

Insider: Lots of those players argue that, whether intentional or not, the proposals as they stand seem to reduce everyone’s ability but Google to give advertisers an equivalent of what they have today when it comes to personalized targeting and measurement. How do you counter that?

Schuh: These proposals involve quite a bit of change. We are trying to build a fundamental privacy model for the web with much stronger guarantees of privacy than existed before.

I can’t speak from the Ads perspective because I’ve never worked at Ads. From the Chrome perspective, one of our top goals here was to ensure that we end up with a reasonably level playing field.

I understand the concern as people are trying to wrap their heads around the different details and, frankly, as some details aren’t filled in yet, people can sometimes fill in the blanks with the worst.

As we roll out these different experiments over the coming months and as they have time to try them out and gauge their performance, I think that will assuage many of these fears.

It really comes down to: do these things meet the privacy guarantees that we need? And do they provide adequate performance that the ad supported part of the web can still continue as a healthy component of the web?

Insider: Chrome as it stands allows users to log in. Google’s Advertising division can help advertisers connect that data with their own lists of email addresses for example — in a clean room [with your] Ads Data Hub [product] from a privacy-focused perspective. In the new version of Chrome in 2022, are you still planning to continue to allow that syncing of logged-in users for the use of personalized advertising once cookies are disabled and once privacy solutions are the norm? Are you planning to change that policy around syncing?

Schuh: I understand what you’re saying about how privacy policies are written today. I’m going to have to have someone on the Ads side get back to you.

Privacy policies are written in the broadest sense and what the privacy policy says is not intended to be, “This is what it does,” it’s, “This is what could be done.” That part is outside my purview.

[After the interview, a Google spokesperson emailed the following statement: “Chrome Sync data is gated with a strict access policy. Google Ads have no access to user data from Chrome Sync for use on serving display ads.”]

Insider: How are Chrome changes like FLoC being introduced into the wider Chromium codebase? Will changes for Chrome roll out at the same time as Microsoft Edge, for example?

Schuh: I can’t make any product decisions for Edge or other Chromium based browsers but we have built all of it with the notion of open standards, open source implementation.

Our desire is for everyone to pick this up because we believe this provides a much more robust baseline for privacy on the web while still preserving monetization. So yes, we absolutely would love for Edge to pick it up; we’d love for all the other Chromium based browsers to pick it up. 

Insider: Is there a timeline for bringing Privacy Sandbox-like technologies to Android apps?

Schuh: There isn’t. I would say we are building a system we feel could even be used beyond the web if it makes sense. But not being on Android, we are not making their decisions for them. 

We are building a system that we feel is open, scalable and will be able to provide the right performance criteria and the right privacy guarantees. So if another platform were to choose to adopt it, that would be great.

Insider: Is there a timeline or a plan to bring things like FLoC to Google’s own products as well? YouTube and Search?

Schuh: I do not know about plans regarding first-party advertising. We are building a system that is intended that all third-party advertising will rely on it. Any Google third-party advertising will have to rely on it.

In the same way that various companies have reached out with with questions about how [to] integrate this, what does it look like, [and provided] feedback, other parts of Google have similarly reached out to us and asked the same kinds of questions and provided the same kind of feedback.

Insider: If I’m right, some of the discussions more recently have focused on user controls?

Schuh: There will still of course be space for user controls under the auspices of the ads themselves. 

If advertisers aren’t tracking users and aren’t building profiles because the state is in the browser, we will need different kinds of controls because the browser’s perspective on what it sees is not the same as the model advertisers have used.

We will be adding new types of control into the browser for things like FLoC membership. We don’t have anything to share today because we are in the iterative design stages. It will be necessary to provider the user controls for those sorts of things but it’s just that the source of truth and the exact nature of truth changes when you propose the sorts of systems we are proposing.

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